LIVE BLOG: Pension Strikes
Reporting to you from picket lines
Today marks the start of strike action. Why are your lecturers, supervisors and staff at the university striking? They're striking for pension security. The UUK have recently proposed to replace defined benefit pension schemes with defined contribution pension schemes for staff whose income falls under £55,000. This proposal will replace a pension with guaranteed income to one dependent on returns from underlying investments in the stock market, making pensions less secure.
The Tab will be live reporting from the picket lines, keeping you up to date with the strikes.
7:40am, Sidgwick Site
The picket line is set to have started but all is quiet at Sidgwick Site- in a way evidence of striking, but then again, no arts student is ever awake at this time.
7:55am, Downing Site
Picketers are up bright and early on the Downing Site – covering the walls with posters and brandishing UCU signs. Though nothing drastic has occurred, cars, vans, cyclists, and passers by all honk and cheer in solidarity with the striking academics.
8:09am, Sidgwick Site
A picket line has formed and the mood is hopeful at Sidgwick Site. Signs passionately point out 'If you care about your education you should care about pensions (ontologically)'. Students are reminded that by not crossing the picket line they can show solidarity with striking lecturers.
8:16am, Downing Site
The strike has expanded to include PHD students as well as lecturers. Amy McQuire, a geography PHD student, argues that this is not just their fight, it includes postgraduate and undergraduate students – the 'best and the brightest' and the 'future of academia'. She maintains that students missing lectures will still be supported, promising that she will aid them informally with whatever questions they may have.
8:30am, Downing Site
Tensions rise as the police arrive across the road. It is unclear whether this is linked to the strike, however, and picketers continue with their protest.
8:39am, Sidgwick Site
Things aren't quite as dramatic at Sidgwick Site. But spirits are high with cars honking in support and bike bells ringing. The picketers make a convincing case for the protests explaining that 'We're effectively not only safeguarding our own pensions which means we're safeguarding our own salaries, which have gone down in real terms by 15%, hut we're also attempting to safeguard the viability of the profession to attract the best young people.' They pointed out that staff have already had to make sacrifice to their pension and are now being asked to make a further sacrifice.
They highlighted the importance of the strikes for the future of education; 'Students are paying loads of money to go to university now- where does that money go? Surely the money should go into paying for the best quality teaching.' They pointed out that poor pensions would put people off the profession of academia, placing its future at risk. They stressed this is an issue for the higher education industry, and that students are welcome to join picketing lines.
8:58am, Downing Site
As the first lectures of the day are set to begin, the Downing Site gets busier – though very few students and staff have crossed the picket line. There is talk about the disparity in the pension schemes of older and newer Universities: 'If I worked at a post-1992 University, I would be better off. And if I were starting my career now, I would get a lectureship at a newer University'. This is one of the biggest points of contention – lecturers know that all University students in the UK pay the same or similar fees, but staff from specific Univerisities have substantially different benefits. They believe that such a significant change to their pension scheme, reducing the average pension by £10,000 per person per year, will gradually lower the quality of higher education in the University as good lecturers are tempted to teach elsewhere.
While the police refuse to disclose what has happened, they insist that their presence has nothing to do with the strikes. It appears that there has been an incident at the Hilton Hotel.
9:00am, Materials Lab
About 20 strikers are gathered around the Materials lab. It appears information about the strike took a while to reach West Cam with picketing info only filtering in yesterday for some.
9:10am, Sidgwick Site
Along the West Road side of Sidgwick the picketing presence is strong. Leaflets are on hand and being handed out to people as they enter the site to inform them about the strikes and encourage people to support them.
9:30am, Downing Site
Picketers talk about their reasons for picketing and their colleagues reasons for not picketing. One professor says that he is protesting on behalf of the younger staff who cannot afford to lose even a month's pay, claiming that this is a matter of 'intergenerational fairness'. Strikers also point out the heightened role that Oxbridge colleges have had in voting for the change in the pension scheme, emphasisng the importance of a strong Cambridge effort and support from all staff and students.
9:39, Senate House
Senate House has a solid picketing presence and is being covered well. All around Cambridge protesters are out fighting for staff pensions.
9:56am, Sidgwick Site
There are a range of picketers here; from MPhil students to lecturers. One MPhil student told The Tab how her motivations came from personal experience; 'I'm a first generation scholarship girl. I have been able to go to college because of public funding and when I find the public funding part of education is under risk it concerns me because it keeps people who need funding out of the system and people who have done service from getting reward.'
Dr Raphael Lyne, an English lecturer and fellow of Murray Edwards College explained his motivation to the Tab saying: 'I compare the pay and condition of people who retired five years ago with the pay and conditions of people who are starting their careers now and with these pension changes the difference is staggering and it's unjustified. That's why I'm here, not particularly about my pension because I have 20 years of a good pension, but now that whole career structure has been dismantled. It's staggering and unjustified.'
People are crossing the picket line but there is also support with cyclist passing by wishing picketers 'good luck'. As the day progresses more people are crossing the line but Sidgwick is generally more empty than one would expect for a Thursday morning.
10am, West Cambridge
Students at West Cam have found out (with quite short notice) that a lecture has been cancelled. Action seems to be increasing in science faculties with a picket line going strong on Madingley Road.
10:29am, Sidgwick Site
The Vice President of Cambridge UCU, Sam James, told The Tab why it's important for students to take an interest in pension strikes: 'Our working conditions are your learning conditions. The more our conditions of work are downgraded, the harder it would be to provide the best teaching possible.' He highlighted that 'It is a pay cut and also means additional stress on staff' and means 'we have to spend time and money thinking about how to fund our retirement even from the early times of our career which is an unwelcome distraction from our teaching.'
He also highlighted that 'By standing up for academic pensions, we're not just standing up for our own economic wellbeing and security, we're also standing up for a model of society where we share the burdens of risk instead of leaving them for each individual to bear. We are defending universities as a common institution of learning rather than a business institution there to bring in money.' He added that 'The worst hit will be people newly entering academia and in that sense it's younger people who have the greatest stake.'
Sidgwick Site, 11:12am
Our very own Tab TV have popped round to Sidge and got some exclusive interviews with picketers. They've been going around to all of the picketing sites- keep an eye out for the video on The Cambridge Tab Facebook page!
In other news, more honks of support but also more people crossing the picket line in to Sidge. Balloons are up and spirits remain high amongst picketers.
11:27am, Sidgwick Site
A University representative has complained at construction workers, working on the Newnham site for reversing into the driveway to Sidgwick site at Sidgwick Avenue. The drive is university property so technically the picketers don't have to let them reverse into it. The representative argued that through reversing the lorries, the builders are infringing the picket line. Picketers seem unperturbed by the lorries. The tension seems to have now diffused.
12 midday, Sidgwick Site
There's an influx of movement as people leave their lectures to move between buildings or exit the strike. There's a clear drop in morale seeing the large number of students and one picketer has started shouting 'There's a strike on' towards the main part of the site. Someone who was on the site is expressing confusion asking 'Are we breaking the line coming in as well as coming out?' and expressed annoyance saying there's an 'insinuation you can't come in' and that entry is not allowed. Picketers responded saying they believe anyone has the right to go in and out but are symbolically requesting people to stay out. The person was not happy.
12 midday, Senate House
A large crowd gathers outside the Senate House as part of CUSU's student rally in support of the strikers. A parade of people carrying 'Unite' banners, chanting, and banging drums arrive in a cloud of coloured smoke. They are received with loud cheers. CUSU President Daisy Eyre begins the rally with a speech, explaining the strike to students and saying that she is 'proud' of the huge turnout. She then proceeds to lead the crowd in chants: ‘What do we want? Fair pensions. How do we get them? Strike strike strike'; 'Students and workers, unite and fight!'; 'Every strike, every time, we'll be on the picket line'; 'When they say 'marketise', we say 'organise'.
12:27, Sidgwick Site
At the West Road side of Sitgwick site things are wrapping up but moods have ended generally high. One picketer expressed how particular joy at seeing student support for the picket. They'll be back tomorrow to do it all again!
12:30, Senate House
Speakers at the CUSU rally discuss the political issues surrounding the strike action. They link it back to 'attacks on students' regarding fees going back to 2010. They define privatisation as three things: exploited workers, fleeced consumers paying over odds, and managers earning 6-figure salaries. After praising the actions of CUSU and NUS, they condemn the 'shameful' role of Oxford, Cambridge, and their constituent colleges.
12:50, Senate House
After encouraging students to take action and sign the open letter, Daisy Eyre leads the protesters in one last round of chants. Gradually, the crowd begins to dissipate, as a procession of banners, smoke, and shouting moves away from the Senate House picket line, and along King's Parade.
1:00 Students speak to the Tab , identifying the changes to pensions as a part of 'the greater push towards marketisation'. This is a common belief, and chimes with the chants ringing around Trumpington Street : 'The enemy is profit'.
1:10 Moving down Trumpington Street, and towards Market Square, violet and blue flares light the crowds.
1:20 The Tab speaks to students involved with the Amnesty group. They point to 'collective action' as a critical response, especailly in practical terms, such as taking part in 'teach-outs'; this is a alternative to traditional academic-led teaching groups, consisting of informal, student-run discussion, which could be an option during the cancellation of classes.
1:30 Moving out of Market Square and down Senate House Passage, an education lecturer hands out UCU placards. He considers the colleges as 'complicit' in the decision to vote for lower-risk pension models (the trigger for the strikes.), and 'heavily implicated'. Within his own college (which he asked to not disclose) he has protested the motion, saying that it happened 'behind closed doors… it was an envelope on the bursar's desk. Usually these matters are openly discussed. Now my future is at stake'.
2:00 The sit-out outside the Senate House is on, with students protesting and cheering.
1:30 The official picket lines have moved to rally outside St. Mary's Church. Protesters are in good spirits, and cyclists show their support by ringing.
1:40 History lecturer and UCU Cambridge Branch Secretary Waseem Yaqoob speaks to the assembling crowds. Good news: there is news of a meeeting taking place in London today. He shares his hope for a positive outcome of this meeting, and urges protesters to continue to apply pressure on University management, so the Vice Chancellor will 'break with the line' and 'dissent'. Overall he speaks of a 'good national picture'.
1:50 The Tab goes on the prowl, speaking to university staff and students in the growing crowds.
An IT worker from the Engineering Department is eager to speak with the Tab. She stresses that she is not just striking for her pension, but on principle of solidarity with all workers. 'A great problem is that very few (of her) colleagues are in the Union….people think that Regent House will represent them.' She concludes that the University along does not do enough to protect their workers' rights, and so joining an independent Union is essential.
Two Queens' (camera shy) students are hanging shyly towards the back of the crowd. They attended the CUSU womcam forum yesterday, which taught students about the history of campaigning in Cambridge. Today they have decided to attend the rally to 'let them (the lecturers)… that the students stand in solidarity… that the strike and pension changes incorporate us, although they are not about us'. They think most students are broadly sympathetic, but recognise that others feel resentment over the strikes, especially those who study heavily content-based courses, such as Medicine. Friends of theirs have been made to feel 'shit' about crossing picket lines to reach lectures and contact hours.
The Tab meets: (some of) The Marxist Society!
Marxist Society member Keelan Kellegher, from Kings (yes)is with two friends. They speak of the need to 'remember what education is for…it's not a business', and stress the need for a great mass movement, rather than seperatist groups or movements: they want to support CUSU. This coincides exactly with speaker Johanna Riha's speech, as she notes that some members of teachers' unions are joining the strike in solidarity today.
2:10: This Tab writer finally manages to get back to the front of the crowd. Speaker Johanna Riha, an Epidemiologist based at POLIS is tells the crowds that invitations to mass picket will be sent out soon, and that she hopes to see this many people, and 'many more' on the pickets on Monday.
The Tab speaks to Anne Alexander. Her message to students is : 'This strike can win… because students are supporting us, and management hasn't succeeded in driving a wedge between students and their lecturers'.
2:20 BREAKING NEWS: Speaker Waseem Yaqoob returns to triumphantly tell the protesters that the Vice Chancellor has just 'crossed over to the dissenters' side' and is now opposing the proposed pension changes. Cheers fill the cold air, and the crowd is jubilant.